After the Donna happening I sunk in deeper and deeper; there would be no painless extraction from this point on. It was an early Wednesday evening, just past seven. Ross and I were driving to his house in Milford, first to drop off a few boxes of donated clothes as there was no room for them in the office, then to go out to dinner. There was a clam shack a few blocks up from his house that he wanted me to try. The best fried clams around (whole bellies, not strips) and steamers. I had helped load up the car after stopping by the office after work and . . . besides, we both had to eat, right? Ross, annoyingly, still found it necessary to have some stated explanation for our being together. Alone in the car with him—his old Oldsmobile—at the mercy of his ramshackle driving and the sultry summer air, I could feel myself melting into a deeper and deeper intimacy, each stage more compelling than the last. I did not see how I ever would get tired of this discovery process.
We turned a corner and I opened my mouth wide in delight, the ocean appearing directly in front of us. We had reached his place on Beach Avenue. Houses were crowded in along one side of the street, the beach running for miles, it seemed, on the other. The houses were set up high on an embankment, the beach several feet lower, the embankment highest on Ross’ end of the street. His house was the last one on the last block, and we pulled into the driveway.
“Let’s get this stuff in and I’ll give you the grand tour,” he said, opening the back door. His place was a gray shingled two-story house, built pre-World War II one would guess from the dark wood paneling, the transoms, and the high wood baseboards. The rooms backed up one behind the other, long, dark and narrow like railway cars. At the very front of the train was the enclosed front porch with steps leading down to the road. However it was no longer enclosed, the screens inexplicably taken out and stacked against the outside wall next to the front door. Behind in the house proper was a small living room, behind that the dining room, seldom used for its intended purpose it appeared, from all the papers and books strewn over the large dining room table, a phone with an extra-long cord perched on an electric typewriter at one end of it. Command central. The downstairs bathroom was off to the left. Bringing up the rear was the huge old-fashioned kitchen. Somehow it had escaped remodeling, its quirky charm, linoleum floor, and over-sized porcelain sink still intact.
Upstairs it was airy and much brighter; there were three bedrooms: one large master bedroom above the living and dining room and two smaller rooms, one now apparently occupied, the other containing a few more boxes of clothes and a shopping bag full of shoes, collected and waiting for people who escaped with just the shirts on their backs. We put the boxes from the office in here.
“You’ve got a lot of space,” I said enviously.
“Yeah, well, I’m seldom here by myself—it’s like a hotel, you know—there’s always somebody here. But that’s okay, especially when I’m away; I don’t have to worry so much about someone breaking in.” He shrugged, “Then again, what are they gonna steal?”
“True . . . How did you manage to find such a great place?”
“I’m just renting. The owner’s a friend of my dad’s. He’s on sabbatical at INSEAD—in France—and now they’re not sure whether they want to come back. In the meantime, they feel more comfortable having a line of accountability.” He laughed, mostly to himself. “All Mrs. Nagle is concerned about is that I take care of the rose bushes . . .”
“And the neighbors don’t mind all the comings and goings?”
“They don’t seem to care as long as no one’s in a rock band.” I was also pretty sure that Ross’ reserved manner charmed them, gave him a fair amount of leeway. We put the last box in the room. “Well, this is the upstairs,” he said, straightening up. “There’s another bedroom there. Dan Morente’s staying here while he’s in the States; right now he’s in New York.”
“He’s the union guy?”
“Yeah, we know each other from school actually. You’ll meet him when he gets back. He went back home after graduating—it would’ve been easier to stay here. He’s a good guy. He’s up here with another guy, de Leon, I think it is. He’s, uh, staying with relatives in Bridgeport.” Ross slowly pushed open the door to the master bedroom with his foot. “And this is where I crash. It has a great view of the Sound; do you wanna see?” he grinned.
“Oh sure,” I joked, “that’s what you tell all your dates.”
“I wasn’t aware this was a date.” He was far too clever. “I’m serious, but it’s your call,” he continued with a look in his eyes that seemed to be mocking both of us equally.
“Well, I can’t pass that up, can I?” I walked past him into his room; it was fairly bare (the Nagles had taken up all their rugs) except for one HRI poster thumbtacked to the wall and some Central American artifacts scattered about. Books and newspapers covered most of the remaining horizontal surfaces and there was a cassette player with a bunch of tapes on the dresser. His bed was at the far end, placed crossways in front of the windows facing the water and highlighted by late afternoon sunlight spilling in from the west through the open bedroom doors. It was made in the sense that the blankets were pulled up over the pillows.
I went over and sat shyly on the side of the bed, discreetly just on the edge of it, and looked out one of the windows, my elbows resting on the sill, my chin resting in my hands. The street ran in front of the house and sharply turned round the corner on the west side of the property, heading back into town; it was the last road in town; there was just a gravel lot to the right of it meeting the beach further up along its sweep. Across the street from the houses was a boardwalk, just a sidewalk really, running for several blocks, with concrete steps at intervals leading down to the beach. It was low tide. The beach and Sound spread out in front of us, a watercolory striated expanse of varying blues and khakis, curving around off to the right so that you could see the crook of the land and the next town spread out beyond it, the declining sun’s rays lighting it up from behind. It was beautiful. The window was just cracked open, and I pushed it up as far as I could so it was just the screen between us and the Sound. The ocean breezes billowed into the room, ballooning out the curtains, blowing back my hair; you could smell the surf and hear it crashing along the beach. (‘She’s beautiful,’ Ross thought.) “Oh, perfect! Just perfect! You’re right, Ross; you’re right, it’s great. What a view.” I turned to him, “It must be wonderful to wake up . . . the sound of the surf, you know . . .and, uh, everything.”
Ross had sat down on the bed opposite me, leaning on one elbow. “It is,” he said, leering shamelessly, running his palm back and forth across the blanket. This was too much and I panicked. I stood up and strolled around the room, my hands awkwardly clasped behind my back. I went over to the dresser, picked up several of his tapes and looked at them—they ran the gamut in genre from Sibelius to Peter Tosh. I could feel Ross’ gaze on me.
“I’ll wait downstairs if you want to change,” I said. Ross said nothing but continued to study me. His eyes were soft and luminous now, hiding nothing for the moment, gleaming with an unsettling mix of amusement at my discomfort, desire and indecision as to what to do about it. Just then I spotted a painting on his bookshelf, an unframed small canvas propped up against the wall. Not a very good painting—there were too many colors crowded into the composition, not enough control or technique, but still the desire of the painter to jam all the beauty of summer onto too small a piece of canvas was somehow evident. I went over to the bookcase, peered closely at it and asked, “Who did this?”
“Oh,” I breathed, thankful I hadn’t just carelessly picked it up. “I used to paint a lot, you know,” I announced self-importantly.
“Yeah, well, so did she,” he replied sadly, the animation backing out of his eyes, retreating back into hiding. I had really blown it. What a stupid thing to say.
Waiting downstairs a few moments later, spell broken, I hovered about, running my hand over the dining room table, aimlessly tapping the typewriter keys. I noticed a yearbook from Brown on top of a pile of books stacked in the corner of the room, and curious, immediately went over and picked it up. This should be good, I thought—a real find. Lots of loose black and white photos were stuck in the back, shots of people playing guitars on back porches; people holding wine bottles in one hand, giving the peace sign with the other; dogs with kerchiefs tied around their necks—all very college. The edges of one of them was frayed and riddled with thumb tack holes—apparently a favorite—and even more curious, I pulled it out. It was a photo of Donna and Ross, a candid shot taken and developed by one of their arty friends at the time, I supposed. A younger, girl-like Donna was sitting curled up reading in a chair in what must have been a dorm lounge—the two of them hitting the books—cut off jeans, madras shirt, long hair pinwheeled up on the back of her head, the end hanging loose like a horse’s tail. Ross was sprawled out on a couch at right angles to her; head resting against the side arm, one big booted foot on the floor, his other leg stretched out propped on top of the couch, a book balanced on his chest. Immediately I sensed his casualness with her; he was obviously, intimately at home. Ross and Donna. He was rail thin in the photo, in jeans and a black T-shirt with some psychedelic silk-screened front, his hair curling around his ears, hanging down past his shoulders in the back. He looked very raw, very nineteen.
The power of this photograph was palpable; a fearsome envy of their history and for the gangly boy I had never known took possession of me. It welled up in my chest, making it burn; it pushed up into my throat, flooding out over my face. I ran my fingers over the puncture holes. This photo shook me; it made me realize how much of Ross I had missed, how recently I’d come into his field of vision. I wanted to put my hands on some of the time that had escaped me, asking coolly when he appeared downstairs in a clean shirt about his undergraduate days to cover my embarrassment at being caught in the act, of wanting it all so badly.
Looking as if he had reached his limit of my poking about his belongings, Ross said he didn’t care to relive his past. He took the photo I was holding (I hadn’t had the sense to put it back before he came up to me) and stared at it, his expression hardening a little, bringing out the arrogant cast to his features. He turned his head toward me, frowning, trying to figure me out. I knew I had unwisely abused my privileges; they were not given out lightly, and now he was going to turn around and lock the gate. “I think you have a strange fixation with the past, Amy,” he said, tossing the picture onto the table with the others. “You don’t see me prying into your former life as a tennis groupie, do you?”
“I never was a groupie, you know that. I don’t know why you say these things just to aggravate me,” I countered softly, looking up at him, mutely asking his indulgence though I had no right to expect it.
“Well, I’ll tell you something about Donna then, since you’re apparently so curious,” Ross said, gathering the photos and sticking them back in the yearbook, then laying the book back on top of the stack. “She wanted me to wear my commitment like a coat—you know, toss it off when things get too hot. That’s not how I . . . that’s not how it works.”
“No, I know that. I wouldn’t like you if that were true,” I said in all seriousness. Ross didn’t have a quick comeback for this, but the phone rang just then, allowing us both an easy out.
* * *
Later that night, back in my room, I was seized by an overwhelming longing for this man. It tossed and turned me; it would not let me rest. I paced my enclosure, running my hands up over my face, sticking them in my hair, pulling until it hurt, all nerves pulsing, face flushed, body damp in the humidity. Why, why, why did I have to leave his house by the sea? It was the only thing besides my work that was real to me. This house, this room, meant nothing; tonight it was a jail. I wanted to lie with him, lie in his arms, lie in his bed and hear the world crash outside, the surf pound the windows. God, why did I act like such a fool today? What would’ve happened if I’d stayed on that bed? I remembered the desire in Ross’ eyes; why didn’t I respond? But there was also something sunk deep there holding him back. Something telling me he wasn’t ready to let go. I thought through everything I knew.
When he dropped me off after dinner earlier tonight, he had stopped me as I was saying ‘See you tomorrow’ and getting out of the car by putting his hands on both my shoulders, pulling me around to him and giving me a kiss, warm and clammy, full on the mouth. It made my head spin.
“See you tomorrow,” he had repeated softly, looking deeply into my eyes, mimicking my intonation in a teasing manner. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to simply smile and get out of the car and not laugh inappropriately in his face or break out into some gyration on the sidewalk. Yet even in the midst of all this, I could still sense his caution. I couldn’t break it.
This desire for the ultimate connection, the opening of the last remaining gate, was so strong it almost knocked me down. I could only hope, I could only rail against time; I would do anything. I went over to the fan jammed in the window and stood before it, letting the cold air rush against my pounding heart, narrowing my eyes, looking out into the black night. I could feel the current running through me forwards and back—I had dreamt of this, had looked for him over the years, the ache in the soul; when I saw him in that church basement I recognized him from my future . . . This hunger, this desire—I knew I would not rest peacefully . . . I knelt down in front of the window. I leaned forward till my forehead met the floor. A bittersweet resignation eventually settled over me—there was nothing I could do—and I knew, like a novice entering the sisterhood, that I had been taken and would no longer struggle, but rather take solace in the totality of it.